Lake House Design Considerations

lake_house_designBuying or building a lake house for full or part-time living presents unique home design considerations.  Sometimes you do not realize what those design differences are until after the fact. My wife and I are at our lake house this weekend. As we spend more time here by ourselves, we contemplate the years ahead as we age. Our hope and plan is that this lake house will be a part-time home in retirement. We also want our family members to be able to enjoy using it as a vacation home. Thus, we have been thinking about its present design and how we might improve it for the long term. These are some of the design considerations that we have discussed.

Using a Lake House as a Vacation Home

As you might imagine, the design preferences can differ depending on how you intend to use your lake house. Most folks think “vacation home” first and that makes sense, particularly if you purchase the lake house pre-retirement.

In no particular order, these are the design features I would think about before buying or building a lake house for use as a vacation home:

1.  Sleeping arrangements. A lake house that is to be used for vacation gatherings needs to have plenty of places for folks to sleep. I’m not referring just to open floor space for air mattresses. For large gatherings, you need to have some real beds, etc., that people can tolerate for a week. This can involve a combination of smaller bedrooms, a bunk room, futons, day beds, trundle beds, and sleeper sofas. We use all of the above. Our bedrooms are not large but they make efficient use of the space. One of our bedrooms is dedicated as a bunk room, with two sets of vertical bunk beds and a fifth bed as a trundle. Our upstairs loft area has a day bed/trundle bed combination with extra floor space as needed for inflatable beds. The basement living area has another day/bed trundle bed combination, a comfortable futon and a sleep sofa. We have two other bedrooms with queen beds and the master with a king size bed. Altogether we can sleep 18 people in our lake house on actual beds with room for at least three more on inflatable beds. We’ve used them all.

2.  Outdoor living areas. When you have large groups at your lake house/vacation home, you need at least one large area where everyone can socialize. To me, the best location for socializing is a large outdoor deck. Our deck extends across the entire back of the house, overlooking the lake. There is room for a full dining table and chair set, a large grill, a deck box, a large swinging sofa, two chaise lounges, and numerous other outdoor chairs. One thing I’ve noticed with most of my neighbors is that their outdoor living areas are smaller. They seem to prefer a smaller screened porch. I think that is a mistake. When we have large gatherings here, the deck is where we hang out. We have a smaller screened porch extending from the basement level toward the lake which gets used also by smaller groups.

3.  Kitchen size. This is an interesting issue. Our lake house kitchen is small. It has all of the basic appliances including a dishwasher but it is nowhere near as large as kitchens you would see in modest homes not on the lake. On the other hand, it is big enough and works fine for us. For one thing, it is open to the dining area and family room which helps. Second, when we have large vacation gatherings, we do most of the cooking on the outside grill. Elaborate kitchens are expensive. Think carefully about how much time and money you want to spend on your lake house kitchen compared to more living area or even more bathrooms.

Using a Lake House in Retirement

Using a lake home for more permanent living alters your design priorities. Some examples that apply to us:

1.  Bathrooms. Many of the lake homes I have been in around this area, including hours, have very modest bathrooms. The showers and tubs are small and not adapted for senior living. We are already planning to enlarge the shower in our master bath.

2. Water Supply. A related lake house design issue is where the water comes from. In many lake home areas, water is taken from a well or even the lake itself. That is not conducive to using the lake house as a permanent place to live. For example, what happens in the winter, in freezing temperatures? We are on a municipal water supply system which is excellent.

3.  Orientation of the house. How to optimally position your lake home on a building lot is an issue that many people don’t think through. For example, our lake house is on a bay that extends eastwardly from the main lake. Many folks want to look toward the main lake so they position the rear of their home (and their main outdoor living area) facing west. The problem is that they are brutalized by the afternoon sun in the summer. For a good part of the day and the year, they cannot use their deck and must pull the shades on their beautiful windows. Our deck faces north, toward the bay. Also, the deck area is under a tree canopy. Therefore, we can be outside enjoying water views without melting from the western sun. It’s a great combination of lake front living with views and shade. We have a small outdoor balcony from our master bedroom that faces west. In the fall and spring we can enjoy that space for the western views.

Final Thoughts on Lake House Design Considerations

As I’m sure you can tell, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the different factors to consider when designing a lake house. I will be writing more about this in the future. I encourage you to consider what I have said but also to speak to other lake home owners.

Photo credit: Camknows


  1. Doug Watson says

    Could you please provide me with a list of family friendly lakes that offer lakefront residences, boating, fishing, skiing, swimming, and also offer some night life around the lake, for a soon to retire couple looking to entertain future grandkids, and having only slightly more than middle class means.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    • MJP says

      Doug – I am not a good resource for a complete list of family friendly lakes. I can recommend Lake Barkley in Kentucky because that is where our lake house is located.

  2. says

    Another tip would be to consider if the lake is seasonal or year-round. In East Tennessee we have many lakes to choose from. On the seasonal lakes the water levels are low during off-season and not as accessible.

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